Putting your best foot forward: valuable soft skills that will help you stand out from the crowd

By: Zakiya Qualls

During the fourth year of my Ph.D. training, when I first embarked on the enormously daunting task of preparing to secure employment upon graduation, I found myself at a loss for where to begin. I knew that I would certainly transition away from academia and enjoyed proudly stating my desire to enter industry, but beyond that, well, there wasn’t a “beyond that” at that point. I didn’t understand what industry professionals were looking for in an ideal candidate and I didn’t have a solsoftskillsid plan to get them to notice me. After more than a year of research, education through the sciPhD course offered through the iJOBS program, and recently securing interviews with medical communication companies, I can confidently say that Ph.D. training is highly valuable. Considering not only the “hard skills” (e.g. technical knowledge), but also the “soft skills” (e.g. communication, time management, conflict resolution, etc.) that you are inevitably developing during your time in graduate school, you will stand out in today’s competitive, entry-level applicant pool. The key is to effectively present these skills on your resume and during interviews. By now, you most likely are well on your way to easily communicating your technical and scientific knowledge; however, you may be overlooking the additional skills that employers find equally important. Let’s review 10 soft skills that you should be simultaneously developing along with your hard skills, which will set you apart from other technically competent applicants.

  1. Communication- Many of the iJOBS blog posts emphasize the importance of communication for a reason. Communication is the basis of any human interaction, and can make the difference between a calm productive workplace and a hostile stagnant environment. In order to brush up on your communication skills, take the ‘Communicating Science’ course offered by Dr. Nicholas Ponzio during the Spring 2017 semester. Highlight this on your resume and during the interview process. This will be something companies are glad you took the time to explore.
  2. Teamwork- You just spent 5+ years of your life working with a diverse team of individuals from a multitude of backgrounds in order to successfully complete a project that led to peer-reviewed publication(s). Scientists are the ultimate team workers. You are already an expert at teamwork. Use your newly found communication skills to highlight this asset during interviews.
  3. Leadership- You may not think of yourself as a natural leader, but can you step up and guide a group of people or a process if necessary? Did you mentor undergraduate students or rotation students during your Ph.D.? Did you rally the entire department to chip in on a particular piece of equipment you needed for your project or did you negotiate a collaboration between a neighboring lab by teaching its post-doc a new skill? These are firm examples of your leadership potential and you should be ready to discuss them at length.
  4. Time Management- During your time in graduate school, you successfully juggled class, research, writing, extracurricular activities, mentoring, journal clubs, life, and even teaching. You’ve mastered the ability to prioritize the order in which tasks get done, which will be highly valued in a corporate environment where tight deadlines and changes are the norm.
  5. Flexibility- Speaking of tight deadlines and an ever-changing workplace, flexibility is a key skill that will help you thrive in life after graduate school. Whether your research group at a pharmaceutical company gets dismantled and you are placed in another remotely related group or you are assigned to a completely unfamiliar therapy area within your medical communications agency, it will help if you are able to quickly adapt to new material. Again, you’re already an expert! How many times did you have to switch projects in lab and scour the literature after months of hard working that didn’t lead to the anticipated results?
  6. Problem Solving/Creativity- Remember that time (or 500 times) when no matter what you did you just couldn’t get a particular experiment to work? That is until you broke down every step of the process in an effort to troubleshoot or you found a crazy new way to measure the same variable. Having an employee who has developed this skill can save a company a ton of time and money! Tell a story demonstrating this skill and you might just have an edge over another applicant who left out this detail.
  7. Motivation/Initiative- We don’t need a long explanation here. You took the initiative to apply for that funded grant you proudly list on your resume. You motivated yourself to show up to lab to collect that time point at 1 a.m. on the snowy Saturday morning because you needed to secure the data for the final figure of your paper. Additionally, presenting supplemental courses and certificates on your resume that have prepared you to transition from academia shows that you are motivated to succeed in your chosen career path.
  8. Dependability/Reliability- Be a person of your word and try your hardest to be consistent. Recommendation letters and references from individuals who can vouch on your reliability give employers the confidence needed to take the extra risk in hiring a less inexperienced candidate.
  9. Commitment- Commit yourself to excellency. Get in the habit of always using proper grammar, avoiding text colloquialism, and putting a professional foot forward. This applies to correspondence you may have with the HR department at a company you are applying to, or even to short emails you are just sending to classmates. This simple action will show everyone that you encounter that you are not only committed to putting your best foot forward at all times, but that you will also represent the company positively when you are sent as a representative.
  10. Patience- This skill will benefit you the most. Remember that securing your first job is the hardest. Congratulate yourself for earning the highest degree possible and do not forget that your hard work will pay off. This is just the beginning of your career and as long as you properly prepare, there is nothing that can stop you from achieving your goals.

In order to master a skill in the lab, you practiced it over and over again. The same applies to developing and presenting soft skills to employers. It may be a little awkward at first, but once you get used to talking about them by giving specific examples of times you’ve used them, you will be easily distinguished from applicants who lack this ability. In conclusion, if master your hard skills and market your soft skills, you will become that well-rounded candidate a company rushes to hire.

One thought on “Putting your best foot forward: valuable soft skills that will help you stand out from the crowd”

  1. Zakiya! Each of these skills and their descriptions are on point. As a fellow iJOBS blogger, I absolutely agree with your listing communication at number one. A tip that I’ve picked up recently (I can’t remember where) is remembering: what is obvious to us is not obvious to others. Most conflicts center on miscommunication. Having the patience (skill ten!) to recognize and clarify the miscommunication usually solves the conflict.

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